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16th July 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
14 July 2017

Readings

Genesis 25: 19-34.

Family dysfunction and ambition now move to the next generation with the birth of the twins Jacob and Esau.

Maurice Andrew writes that Jacob is a go-getter who is supposed to be subordinate to his brother but puts it over him by trickery and this is a type familiar to other folk stories.  He quotes Maui as also the little one who gets up to tricks and outwits his brothers. 

Maurice says that the characters of Genesis 25 are more realistic than the modern idea of ‘religious’ people who are supposed to be all the same.   Jacob’s name suggests deviousness because it is associated with grasping the heel while Esau is the Bible’s prototype of the macho male.[1]

Note the repetition of the barren wife which reminds us of the biblical style of repeating themes that goes right through to the gospels.  Elijah was a hairy macho prophet and Mark’s description of John the Baptist alludes to Elijah by, among other things, having him clad in a hairy coat.

Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

This is the well-known parable of the sower and it invokes a common scene of a peasant trying to eke out a living in generally inhospitable conditions. 

Three lots of seed fall on poor ground and produce nothing and the birds and the sun are also adversaries.  Warren Carter also reminds the reader that peasants had other unmentioned adversaries such as rent, tithes, taxes and tools.  They also had to save seeds for the next year along with supporting their household.  Crop failure meant borrowed money and indebtedness, as it could lead to default on the loan which in turn would lead to loss of land, and virtual slavery as a labourer.   However there is hope because some seed falls on good soil and Carter suggests the yield is more a suggestion of the future of God’s realm than the reality of agriculture of the time.  Jesus concludes by asking the audience to reflect on the story. [2]

Experts in parables stress that Jesus would not have given explanations of the parables—they are open ended stories that connect with different people in different ways. 

Therefore the explanation is the way Matthew sees the parable speaking to his community and in that understanding it will also speak to us.  But to understand Jesus we need to hear it in the harsh realities of peasant life in the first century.

Sermon

By including an explanation to the Parable of The Sower Matthew frames this parable in a mission context.  That is reasonable when we remember the closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel where the risen Christ commissions the disciples as apostles by instructing them to: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19)  

In that context the parable of the sower is teaching that for a variety of reasons not everyone will respond to the message they bring.

That is a reality and a frustration for all who hear the call to spread the gospel.  It is also a reality that political parties need to be aware of in an election year.  People’s entrenched ideologies, economic circumstances, fear of change or desperate hopelessness can make them totally indifferent to participating in a democracy.

Regardless of message, political or spiritual some people will be the hard path that cannot hear a new idea.  Others with get all enthusiastic and then get sidetracked into some other enthusiasm.  People will be overwhelmed by the struggles and difficulties of their lives to a point where such diversions choke out the enthusiasm the message sowed in them. 

Then there are the favoured few who are not only able to receive the message but internalise it and make it part of who they are becoming.  They are the lives that touch other lives, become activists and transform their world through their transformation.

Michael Leunig has written a prayer for ideas that guides us towards being fertile minds capable of internalising and appropriating new thoughts.

God help us with ideas, those thoughts which inform the way we live and the things we do.

Let us not seize upon ideas, neither shall we hunt them down nor steal them away. 

Rather let us wait faithfully for them to approach, slowly and gently like creatures from the wild.  And let them enter willingly into our hearts and come and go freely within the sanctuary of our contemplation, informing our souls as they arrive and being enlivened by the inspiration of our hearts as they leave.

These shall be our truest thoughts.  Our willing and effective ideas.  Let us treasure their humble originality.  Let us follow them gently back into the world with faith that they shall lead us to lives of harmony and integrity. Amen.[3]

However the Parable of the Sower is just that, a parable and Jesus originally told it to rural folk who would have instantly recognised the farming practise the parable described. 

How often would they have been frustrated by the wind blowing the seed on the hard path only to be consumed by birds?  Perhaps their minds also wandered to the foibles of the feudal system that allowed other people who neither sowed nor reaped to demand a portion of their crop as rent or protection money.  A modern subsistence farmer might think about the seed companies who will only deal with farmers who agree not to plant their own harvested seeds.  

Some of those thoughts are straying into the realm of the seeds in shallow soil that grow quickly then dry up through lack of moisture.  They could also be ideas from Leunig’s poem that are seized upon, hunted down or stolen away.  Ideas that have not had the opportunity to mature in the mind, ideas that have been acted on too quickly for fear that others might steal them away.  Such enthusiasms can easily wither away as even newer ideas are plagiarised and life becomes a muddle of uncompleted journeys. 

Weeds are a constant problem in any election year as claim and counterclaim compete for our understanding and commitment. 

The images in the parable would have been well understood by Jesus’ rural audience and indeed the next parable Jesus tells is the story of the Wheat and the Weeds.  In that parable the weeds cannot be removed without damaging the wheat.  

Our world is filled with ordinary people that, as Howard Wallace points out, are featured in the story of Jacob and Esau.  In fact the ongoing story of Abraham’s descendants is filled with people, who cheat, steal, deceive, plot, trick and lie.  Yet God’s purpose is fulfilled in the midst of this complex, deceitful, and divided world.  None of the characters are without blemish yet these are the very people with whom Yahweh choses to become entangled and give his promise to.

Within this murky world of human reality portrayed in these stories God’s purpose is worked out.  Today’s reading and the rest of the stories in this part of the Bible are about a real world where God’s purpose is worked out.  These stories reject any romantic pietism we might attribute to them as people struggle for their place in a hostile world. 

We are told that Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah and she was barren.  With Abraham’s fixation, or divine promise, of being the father of nations we can imagine a fair bit of anxiety around Rebekah’s seeming inability to conceive. The fact that it took a long time to get Isaac married off would add to that fear. 

Given the family history we could also imagine that Rebekah had a fair amount of apprehension that Isaac might take another wife to keep the family inheritance going forwards.

Then in true biblical irony she becomes pregnant with twins who contest their inheritance even before they are born.  Esau was born first but Jacob was born holding onto his brothers heal.  So the struggles for family hierarchy began right from the start. 

The mention in the text that they represented two nations reminds us of the division between Isaac and Ishmael.  Therefore the family dysfunction that separated Isaac and Ishmael is acknowledged as affecting the next generation which is something that is all too real in our world.

One of the intriguing themes that comes through each of these stories is the way people strive to make their own way in the world and control their destiny.  That is something that we all do and in fact are encouraged to do.  We go through school and university striving to get good results so we can get a good job so we can buy a house, raise a family, and save for our retirement.  However people are finding that the job they have trained for no longer exists or employers are reluctant to employ new graduates preferring to tempt staff away from their competitors.  

People in all ages live in the world of Jesus’ parable of the sower and hear the parable through their own experience.  The world of humanity is a world of paths, shallow soil and choking weeds yet in that world there are also pockets of fertile soil.  The fertile soil is the moments where lives are changed and new understanding grasped by someone who goes on to affect others.  There are inspiring people and the Gospel message transforms ordinary people into extraordinary people who transform the lives of other people. 

The world of humanity is not a well-groomed paddock, ploughed and fertilised through scientific soil testing and GPS precision.  A field sown with Monsanto’s genetically engineered seed designed to produce the maximum yield.

The fields of humanity are not even ploughed before the seed of human potential is generously scattered across the population that with very few exceptions cheat, steal, deceive, plot, trick, lie and completely stuff up.

Yet all are fed and watered by God’s almighty hand with the wonder growth stimulant called divine grace and the irrigation of new beginnings. 

Certainly as card carrying Methodists and Presbyterians we may well be trying to achieve some level of pietism and exemplary behaviour.  As such we struggle to identify with Jacob’s trickery.  But the reality is that, like everybody else, we make mistakes, we get tangled up in family responsibilities, unexpected challenges and even squabbles over inheritance and divorce settlements.  Furthermore we are also likely to wallow in past mistakes and allow them to limit our future.

The great blessing of the Genesis stories is that they tell us that it is real people like us who are part of God’s plan.  It is real people who, in the midst of life’s struggles, will treasure the humble originality of effective ideas and follow them gently back into the world with faith.  Those are the people of the good soil, people like us that can lead others to lives of harmony and integrity. 

It is ordinary everyday failed disciples that become the fertile soil where the risen Christ takes hold of their innermost being.  It is people like us where the Christ seed flourishes and brings transformation in our lives and spreads the fruit of new beginnings to others in amazing abundance.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999) pp.69,70.

[2] Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004) p.282.

[3] Michael Leunig ,The Prayer Tree (North Blackburn: HarperCollins 1991).

 

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